Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Like Rachel Chu’s visit to her boyfriend’s home country-turned-baptism of fire into the jaw-dropping wealth of its snobbish social circle, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is challenged to hurdle the waning effectiveness of the rom-com genre while staying true to the cultural and satirical backbone of its literary counterpart. Fortunately, the cinematic adaptation is enthusiastic, heart-warming and winsome; not just limited to the endearing central romance but also a satisfying showcase of love for one’s family, legacy and identity that keeps the film’s designer heels on the ground while revolving on its opulent orbit.

Movie Poster

Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel which is the first in the trilogy that tastefully chronicles the lives of the elusive, ‘old rich’ Young-Shang family, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is both a delectable appetizer that entices the best of what the genre has to offer in a long while, and a decadent main course that takes pride on its well-meaning acknowledgment of its heritage. Here is a film that embraces the fusion of the West influences into the East without losing sight of its ideals; one that recognizes its roots and assuredly forges its own path without trampling another. While the film demographic is specific (one percent of Singapore’s one percent) and the characters’ histories are deepened by their cultural background, its story about love is multi-faceted and universal. Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick’s (Henry Golding) romance ushers a familiar yet necessary inclusion of familial affairs that expands the film’s emotional bearings, like the pair’s respective relationships with their mothers. Nick is reunited with his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) who is one-half of the much-awaited ‘Wedding of the Century’. As she attends vicious social gatherings, Rachel is aided by Peik Lin (Awkwafina), her then-college roommate and part of the ‘new rich’; and the Nick’s refined cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan embodying beauty, grace and sophistication). The film introduces but doesn’t delve much on Nick’s extended family who would play bigger roles in the second and third books (like the materialistic Eddie Cheng, the obnoxious Young sisters, the always dependable but snarky Oliver T’sien portrayed by Nico Santos, and the gold-digging starlet Kitty Pong) but the script by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim is streamlined for the better.

What seemed like an ‘us against the world’ premise, CRAZY RICH ASIANS sensibly digs into the clash of culture and perception amidst the obvious monetary gap that immediately triggers the prejudice against the film’s main protagonist. As the ABC (American-born Chinese) and NYU economics professor Rachel Chu, Wu enlivens her book character with charm, cleverness and confidence as she navigates Nick’s titular baggage. Even though possessing a learned credential and pleasing attitude, Rachel’s lack of financial pedigree and unconventional upbringing makes her an unsuitable choice in the proud eyes of the ‘old rich’. But for Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel is a threat that pulls her son away from the family and their legacy. In just the first scene as she and her family were subjected in the film’s sole depiction of racism, Yeoh establishes Eleanor as a formidable matriarch who refuses to settle for less. But unlike her book persona who verges into ludicrousness, Yeoh’s Eleanor is someone who can be sympathized with despite being at odds with Rachel. The mahjong play-off between her and Rachel is an unexpected venue for a moving emotional climax that juxtaposes on Rachel’s academic discussion on game theory. Both are playing with Nick’s welfare in their minds but it is Rachel who realizes in her happy end that the way to win is to let herself lose.

Meeting the dragon mom

Jon M. Chu has directed numerous blockbuster sequels (Now You See Me 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) that CRAZY RICH ASIANS is a chance to pave his own vision. Infusing montages of Singapore’s famous hawker food and a dumpling-making session add intimacy in Rachel’s immersion to Nick’s social stratosphere. Rachel and her glam team happily dance into the Mandarin version of “Material Girl” while “Yellow” softly plays in the final pivotal scenes, though the film could have incorporated pop culture of its local flavor apart from the recognizable Singaporean tourist spots. The appearance of Malay royalty (Princess Intan played by Kris Aquino) seemed out-of-the-blue but her presence served as a stand-in for a royal bloodline connection that the film opted to exclude to keep its narrative focused on the core characters. The translation of affluence from page to screen is toned down (Tyersall Park, which is the Youngs’ crown estate, was underwhelming) but manageable (and still enticing) since the lifestyles are so overtop that it was hard to keep track of what was being described in the books. Nevertheless, the lavish displays are nothing as compared to the heart of the film which is Rachel and Nick’s love for each other and it’s the only thing that matters.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS is not as absurd and riotous as its source material in mining the excesses of its fictional elite (the sequence where Rachel tries to escape the wedding carnival is the closest feel of crazy), perhaps stowing the intriguing and juicy chapters in the next installments. Modern-day observations about cultural and economic differences are hilariously on point, but the film’s highlights are the emotional honesty that pours in Rachel’s scenes with her mother, Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), Astrid’s confrontation with her husband and the subtle interactions between Nick and Eleanor. More importantly, the conscious choice of empowering Rachel by embracing her identity and using it as her weapon against anyone who wields it as a flaw is what makes her one of the most resilient and realest protagonists onscreen.

“You have a pretty nose.”

Having watched various Hollywood movies with Caucasian leads, it was truly a delight to see Asian actors claim the spotlight and not being relegated to supporting roles or into the sidelines. To wait after twenty five years for the next predominantly Asian-American ensemble since The Joy Luck Club was baffling but hopefully, CRAZY RICH ASIANS becomes a precedent (now that a sequel is in the works). I may not be an Asian-American nor represented in the story (which is okay but as a fan of the books and someone who simply pines for a good rom-com, this film is a win for me.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Advertisements

Film Fever: Birdshot

The Philippine eagle, its majestic presence soaring on picturesque milieus of the countryside, is both a victim and a witness in Mikhail Red’s second feature. True to its name, BIRDSHOT hits two genres with Red’s confident direction; a moody coming-of-age tale intertwined with a suspenseful crime story that converged into a riveting finish. More impressive is how its maker had done it with finesse and maturity (in his early 20s). It might be too early to say that the future of Philippine cinema is in guaranteed hands but rest assured that filmmakers like Red have a vision on where it could lead.

Image may contain: 3 people, text

It is interesting to note that prior to the Philippine eagle, the country’s national bird was lonchura antricapilla – the scientific name for ‘red maya’. Personified by newcomer Mary Joy Apostol, Maya is a daughter of a caretaker of a land from a nearby eagle sanctuary, who spends her idyll days yearning to see the world beyond, like a caged bird fluttering for freedom. But instead of learning how to fly, she is taught how to fire a rifle by her father (Ku Aquino) by means of self-efficiency. In dire circumstances, the naïve yet stubborn Maya becomes an unwitting gunslinger; the bold image of her holding a weapon with a red scarf (or poncho) is the closest inspiration to a Western movie (with a local touch). Not only was it striking to behold a female protagonist portrayed with such symbolic power, but also beguiling on how her transformation ties to the other half of the film.

Maya as the hunter turned hunted

The procedural nature unravels with John Arcilla (Heneral Luna) and Arnold Reyes as police officers Mendoza and Domingo, respectively; who were originally tasked to probe the case of a missing provincial bus en route to Manila. The film’s tagline “Paano kung may malaman ka na hindi mo dapat malaman?” forewarns Domingo’s descent to violence as he vainly searched for the truth. The good cop, who had winced on Mendoza’s cruel methodology of obtaining intelligence, proved that he could be worse (or at least at par) when he spiralled from idealism to violence. Though set in the 1990s, BIRDSHOT is eerily resonant on its unflinching depiction of brutality, especially concerning the law. Coming off as cool yet cynical, Mendoza does not think twice on inflicting damage to persons of interest; and he is more eager to witness Domingo’s quick embrace of the policemen’s norm. The invisible hand of corruption orchestrates the series of social injustice that Domingo was dogged to solve, but the film does not simply settle for claiming justice…

Domingo (L) and Mendoza (R) on their patrol

While most coming-of-age stories saw optimism at the end of the tunnel, BIRDSHOT soberly aims for an ambiguous ending that only the king of birds can see. They hover on the persecuted ground that evokes a haunting closing shot. Unhurried on its pace, the film firmly established the parallel tales on the loss of innocence. The independence Maya had hoped for came with a price while the paranoia that descended upon Domingo took toll on his family and career. In his sophomore outing, Red masterfully balanced and conjoined the two parts that made the whole more intriguing and poetic. Brooding in its core, BIRDSHOT is precise on targeting thought-provoking allusions whose feathers remain grounded on a true event. The filming locations are both serene and unsettling, captured on natural light which is only fitting since this battle for survival is staged on troubled troposphere.

As a blossoming young woman, Maya’s graduation from child’s play was brutal and tragic. All because of a death of a haribon. Easily one of this year’s most excellent films (winning the ‘Asian Future Best Film Award’ in the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival), BIRDSHOT contemplates on the wrong-doings of man against himself and to the world he lives in. And it is up to the paramount of the food chain (or pyramid) to pass the sentence.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Screened during the first-ever Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (August 2017)

*Photo credits to owners.

Five

Today marks my first five years in the corporate world… Except that I’m out, for now.

I was about to publish another blog to commemorate the anniversary but writing it turned out to be self-patronizing. The essays that I used to write were personal and ruminating; but this particular content made me eye-roll on my desperate attempt to feel better at my current disposition. Writing it makes me want to simultaneously sulk and recover from my insecurity, jealousy and self-pity. In other words, I try to pour out the negativity but not able to purge them.

There may have been setbacks along the way, largely due to my shortcomings. I wished to have a stronger will, a clearer sense of purpose, and a more buoyant perspective. In my solitude, I wondered (or fantasized) about my alternative life if I took a different path (or a detour). But the past cannot be undone. I’m telling ‘this’ to myself, not to forcibly reconcile with it, but to keep my gears on moving forward:

I do not regret the past five years.

Those experiences allowed me to create an interesting and versatile character (that I wish employers will take notice!); to become a stepping stone for my academic endeavor (which I would finally reap this month!); and to save up for my future (I really hope to replenish them soon!).

These thoughts are not unique; many, perhaps even my peers could be feeling the same way. But these make me realize that people write their own stories based on their life decisions. Though some may have been left behind and others have taken off, I believe that my phase has a purpose determined by the omnipotent.

My story will take its time to unravel, and I am okay with.

Film Fever: Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 (Part 1)

Film Fever is a special section allotted for film festivals. In this edition, the movies for consideration are the entries currently (and miraculously) shown in the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) 2016. Below are the capsule reviews on my first batch of films, in no particular order:

@@@@@

DIE BEAUTIFUL

It would be naive to assume that Jun Robles Lana’s dramedy will be painted as an artificially colored portrait of one transgender woman’s life story. After all, the third sex is often side-lined and reduced into a comedic supporting role (as remarked by another MMFF entry). But DIE BEAUTIFUL not only captures the honesty of the lives that Trisha (Paolo Ballesteros) represents, but also the beauty and ugliness in humanity. The humor and joy are balanced with pain and tragedy as Trisha leads a life of an unwanted son, adoring friend, devoted lover, and caring mother while doggedly pursuing her ambition of becoming a beauty queen. The sympathetic character study unravels in a non-linear manner that transpires during Trisha’s seven-day wake, offering an intimate and unflinching look in her short existence. Beyond his popular “make-up transformations”, Ballesteros delivered a convincing and winning portrayal as a transgender that named him Best Actor in the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival. Rookie actor Christian Bables deserves a supporting nod for his naturally wonderful turn as Barbs, Trisha’s loyal best friend. Their easy rapport and the close-knit nature of fellow transgender women (and gay men) anchor the film’s upbeat attitude despite the revealing title. Writer-director Lana chose substance over style in terms of translating the narrative onscreen that can become dragging sometimes, perhaps a statement on the unflattering conditions that Trisha attempts to glamorize through her BeauCon (beauty contest) endeavors. A touch of flair is instead manifested on the beautiful personalities that Trisha wears inside her casket that signify fragments of her identity. DIE BEAUTIFUL is both sensational and sad, considering the publicized injustices that the local LGBT community experiences. Yet the film does not end in despair as it sends a universal message of acceptance and understanding – one that defines a person not based on his/her gender but in a meaningfully led life.

Rating: 3.0/4.0

 

SEKLUSYON

To say that it replaced the Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise as the lone horror entry is an injustice to describe Director Erik Matti’s follow-up to Honor Thy Father. Devoid of shallow scares and cheap orchestrations, SEKLUSYON conjures a palpable atmospheric terror that creeps into one’s sense of faith rocked by the demon made flesh. Among the horror sub-genres (witchcraft, home invasion, paranormal, torture porn, etc.), it is the one influenced by religion that I am most fascinated about, mainly because of the two facets of fear channeled in the spiritual affiliations of good and evil. In his return to the genre since the anthology ABCs of Death 2 (2014), Matti splices a layered depiction of fear that oscillates from the deacons’ transgressions haunting them during their seven-day seclusion, to the malevolence of false prophets that an investigating priest (Neil Ryan Sese) discovers. These two story-lines converge to reveal the malicious entity in the form of a young girl, Anghela (Rhed Bustamante) who bears miraculous powers that oozes from her through an eerie black liquid. While Anghela’s origin is left ambiguous and her connection with one of the deacons (Ronnie Alonte) required more plausibility (a few of the frustrating loose ends in the film), SEKLUSYON seizes viewers on the ill possibility of people abandoning a god who is silent, lethargic and indifferent to a deity of easy comfort and flowery promises in exchange of corrupting one’s faith. Set in a post-World War II locale, the horror feature is an alternate view on the escapism in false religion (this time engaging the devil) that the director earlier explored in his aforementioned modern revenge drama. Similar to the noir-inspired aesthetic of On the Job (2013), the chilling ambiance is fostered in candle-lit corners and darkened rooms that accentuates the anxiety in solitude. But the real scares are carried by Bustamante who outshines her older co-actors with her grave presence that alarms attention (and merits an acting nod). It had been a long while when a child has been cultivated in the hands of evil (tracing back to The Omen series). Bustamante is up for the challenge, and indeed she made herself memorable both onscreen and in dreams. SEKLUSYON is a genuine Philippine horror piece that utilizes acting, story and mood in stirring natural fear. It speaks of the vulnerability of the human mind and soul, and the powerlessness from evil. How can then the devil be stopped if it is already guised in sheep’s clothing? In the film’s unsettling finish, you cannot.

Rating: 3.5/4.0

 

SAVING SALLY

When Marty (Enzo Marcos) met Sally (Rhian Ramos) back in their high school days, they became inseparable. And just like the tales of friendship that prospered into courtship, their destination to romance was long time coming. Self-aware of its typical love story, SAVING SALLY greatly relies on visual spectacle to a charming and refreshing result. Director Avid Liongren’s passion project of more than 10 years is the most technically inventive entry in this year’s film fest – a quirky live-action that taps into the inner romantic and is never ashamed to show one’s individuality. As an aspiring artist, Marty’s imagination has become the viewer’s perception of reality; in his world, only the significant people are perceived as actual humans while the others are made alive as 2D monsters. Yet the film’s animated backdrops and Sally’s inventions are real, thanks to the ingenious technology that breaks away from the conventional romance onscreen. Every scene is a delight to watch as each is executed with a playful air of unpredictability, not knowing where the strokes of animation will lead you. Though not perfect, SAVING SALLY is a technical and artistic feat in local film-making that viewers must give a chance. Underneath the style is a coming-of-age story burgeoning of youthful aspirations, cathartic self-expression and genuine uniqueness. But while the film veers away from mainstream lore, it settles to the cinematic trope of a ‘damsel in distress’ in what could have been a chance to subvert the genre. Mostly told in the male perspective, SAVING SALLY misses the opportunity in empowering its titular character. As a self-described artist, mercenary, and inventor, Sally has the makings of an independent and strong female persona who has the necessary arsenals to save herself. It’s a plot twist that could have made the film a bolder embodiment of its comic book milieu. At least Liongren does not resort to having Marty wear a cheesy cape.

Rating: 2.5/4.0

 

ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK 2 #ForeverIsNotEnough

After poking fun at indie film-makers’ desperate and obsessive attempts to create an internationally recognized cinematic masterpiece, the acerbic and irreverent ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK returns, this time to release an armory of mockery in the so-called ‘mainstream treatment’ on the silver screen. The creative team of director Rainier (Kean Cipriano), line producer Jocelyn (Cai Cortez promoted to a speaking role) and production assistant Lennon (Khalil Ramos whose sole dialogue is the only sound during the climactic scene) once again enlists Eugene Domingo (in a fictionalized version of herself) for Rainier’s newest independent feature. Loosely adapted on the director’s marital life, The Itinerary follows the desolate dissolution of Romina (Domingo) and Cezar’s (Joel Torre) marriage. But Rainier’s cinematic vision is distorted as Ms. Eugene proffers her artistically ruining suggestions that mirror the sugar-coated gimmicks big film studios deploy. These include recasting the aged Torre for a younger love interest, adding unnecessary supporting roles such as Romina’s best friend and parents, inserting gratuitous musical and visual backgrounds, and even enunciating a confounding quote that is lacking of substance. The second satirical installment of writer-and-director duo Chris Martinez and Marlon Rivera, respectively, tickle in its observation of the ‘mainstream’ formula that has long been the DNA of contemporary romance. Whether the industry would actually revamp its romantic storytelling is beyond the film’s agenda. What is unexpected, however, is how it becomes a parley between a mainstream abolitionist and an artist desiring to cross-over to commercial heights. Ms. Eugene is correct in saying that cinema is a form of vibrant escapism; yet she, along with the film-makes of similar motives, is wrong to belittle the cinematic taste and intelligence of their viewers. There could not have been a more opportune time for ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK 2 to grace the silver screen; its relevance trumping over other unwarranted franchises that failed to secure a slot in this year’s MMFF. Though it lacked the thematic subtlety and the buoyant camaraderie of Cipriano and JM de Guzman from the original, the sequel still spurs of ridiculous parody self-deprecatingly played by Jericho Rosales and Joyce Bernal. Unsurprisingly, the primadonna once again gets what she wants, but not without the special participation of karma that crashes towards her in the series’ signature close.

Rating: 3.0/4.0

Film Diary: Y Tu Mamá También

Before hitching the Hogwarts Express to unleash the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron returned to his motherland to direct what will then be recognized as one of world cinemas’ finest. Not only does Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (2001) sizzle and seduce on its emotional coming-of-age story, but it also serves as an allegory to the life-changing moments in both personal and national histories. An audacious and revealing road-trip, it takes viewers on an evocative (and erotic, if I may add) chronicle of desire, friendship and self-discovery that transcends with an overwhelming punch. It was wildly fun until it lasted, but the charolastras will never be the same again.

vlcsnap-2016-12-17-22h34m18s419.png

In a lay-by that provoked the turning point of Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch’s (Diego Luna) kinship, the film’s narrator describes a kind of pain the boys experienced as they witnessed and learned, respectively, of each own sexual exploits. It was also the burgeoning sensation one will feel in the closing minutes that would only make their excursion more poignant. Famous for its thematically sensual scenes, Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN gently unties the tragedy that will befall among its three central characters. The narrator, serving as the cinematic omniscient presence, reveals in a painful conclusion that Julio and Tenoch will decidedly not see each other anymore. Luisa (Maribel Verdú), their Spanish acquaintance and the apple of the boys’ eyes, stayed behind to spend her last, living days (unbeknownst to them). The sober finality greatly contrasted the explicit revelry depicted throughout the film. Julio and Tenoch were introduced as blithe teenagers of differing socioeconomic backgrounds who are bonded by their expansive indulgences. Alcohol, drugs and sex are staples in their pre-adulthood life but not to the point of self-destruction. However, it pried a nasty version of their selves and triggered the dissolution of their friendship.

(L-R) Gael Garcia Bernal as Julio, Maribel Verdú as Luisa, and Diego Luna as Tenoch

Much has been said on the film’s queer undertones but there’s no denying the captivating closeness of Julio and Tenoch. At the heart of Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN is the genuine portrayal of real-life friends Bernal and Luna who naturally dive into the seemingly uncomplicated and untroubled lives of their characters. The rapturously candid scenes would not have the same effect if not for the young actors’ rapport; not to mention their potent chemistry with Verdú as they travel along rural Mexico. Cuaron struck two coming-of-age stories in one stone as the changing dynamic between Julio and Tenoch took place in a period where their country is undergoing a major political shift. It is a subtle testament to the unpretentious treatment of youth, in which the world is not only about and revolves around them. The narrator proffers deeper connection of the events, people and places they encountered; some insightful and sentimental, others foreboding and melancholic. Verdú fluidly carried the emotional weight that spiralled onto Luisa as she bravely accepted her doomed fate. As a woman who has yet to enjoy the fullness of her independence, Luisa’s abrupt existence is heart-breaking yet powerful enough to stir the status quo between Julio and Tenoch.

But Luisa did not willingly want it to happen, had she known the gutting aftermath. Julio and Tenoch, both juvenile and salacious, had little foresight on the consequences of their actions. The climatic tryst is a fitting culmination in their gratifying quest of exploring one’s sexuality. Does the film suggest they could have been more than friends? Or are they just stricken by drunkenness and the hot Mexican weather? I’m more convinced on the latter, though it is worth pondering the overlapping relations that they had which made them closer more than ever. Nonetheless, it awakened a sense of modesty that became the driving force on why they grew apart.

Reaching Heaven’s Mouth

Viewers will be surprised to find out the context behind the literal translation of the film title (‘and your mother too’). But beforehand, they will be enamoured by the excellent performances of Bernal, Luna and Verdú; and the exotic beauty and culture of Mexico lensed by Cuaron’s frequent collaborator (and three-peat Academy Award winner) Emmanuel Lubezki. A particular scene stands out because of how Lubezki captured Verdú’s allure and the scorching attraction among the leads. Written by the Cuaron brothers, the film was nominated at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay but lost to another foreign entry which I have yet to see (Talk to Her).

Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN is a delectable slice of world cinema that presents its universal message in the most intimate language. It does not manifest romance nor satiate the lust; instead the film unravels the yearning for human connection. How people come and go into our lives is one of the saddest mysteries. But the more peculiar is why we let them be.

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Photos were grabbed on respective film sites.

Awards Circle: Belated Oscars 2016 Round-up (Part 1)

I return from my (academic) hiatus with a look back at the Best Picture nominees of the 88th Academy Awards. While my top pick didn’t win the plum (if you follow me online, you know how furiously passionate I am about it), I’m still delighted at the results. I can’t promise there will be no display of bad blood here (sorry in advance The Revenant, but you deserved your Oscars anyway. Sort of.). So here’s my take, counting down from the good to the best of 2015’s so-called best, and may the ceremonies to come prove to be more worthy and inclusive!

@@@@@

8. The Martian

 Acclaimed director Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi fare and probably helmed one of the genre’s rare, ‘feel-good’ films, whose rousing thoughtfulness transcends from its extra-terrestrial setting. THE MARTIAN is more than a just a survival story of the titular character (which is also the same reason why Matt Damon would feel overshadowed). It is a celebration of genius that instills admiration to the men and women dedicated to pursuing the mystery of the vast truth beyond them. Familiar sci-fi elements run in its DNA but if there’s one thing THE MARTIAN successfully achieves (as compared to let’s say, Jurassic World), it invokes the natural sense of wonder and dread in space, and hope in humanity. Film-wise, THE MARTIAN is easily accessible thanks to the buoyant tone of Mark Watney’s (Damon) predicament. While his deadpan demeanour in lowering oxygen and supply levels makes him affable, it is his resilience that would make viewers root for him as he uproot himself from the red planet. Supporting characters orbiting Watney’s rescue mission seemed underutilized, but it was refreshing to see a strong female perspective in Jessica Chastain’s commander-at-large. In the end, my praises for the movie would be directed to the real astronauts and scientists, which I used to want to become when I was a child. (And I must admit on having fleeting memories of the superb Moon while watching). But the whole of THE MARTIAN does feel it serves a greater purpose – inspiring (not just promising young intellectuals) to believe in the impossible.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

 

7. The Big Short

The eventual Best Adapted Screenplay winner could be described as a testosterone-filled tableau about the ‘winners’ of the 2008 global financial crisis. Comedy-drama THE BIG SHORT boasts of Hollywood’s A-listers who re-enact the gamble of their Wall Street-counterparts as they hedge against the impending credit crunch. Among the eight Best Picture nominees, it is the most informative and factual (with respect to Spotlight), made attuned for mainstream viewing through Adam McKay‘s crisp direction and rapid interplay that webs the ensemble’s storylines. Smooth-talking Ryan Gosling as a Deutsche Bank dealer is convincing while Brad Pitt keeps the movie interesting by playing a retired trader aiding two green capitalists. The financial implosion would not feel cathartic if not for Christian Bale’s manic spiritual animal as the brilliant hedge fund manager who first recognized the collapse of mortgage-backed securities. Guest stars keep the viewers abreast of the concepts popping out and their appearances are amusing, if not a diversion from the real-life occurrence of such global disaster. Personally, I associate myself with Steve Carell’s grouchiness towards his profession. Turns out that in the end, we have something in common: we are both out from the market.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

 

6. The Revenant

I wasn’t surprised when THE REVENANT received its fair share of acclaim and criticism. The film that finally earned Leonardo DiCaprio his first Best Actor trophy had admirably immersed viewers in the breath-taking yet perilous wilderness whose natural beauty is impeccably captured by three-peat cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Director Alejandro Inarritu indulges on another masterful attempt towards perfection, this time through a man’s undying strength and unbreakable spirit (a virtuous subject as compared to the relentless ego of Birdman). As the titular character, DiCaprio’s commitment to the role was Herculean in his undaunted quest for survival and revenge. THE REVENANT delivered one of cinema’s rawest adventures but amidst the grit and gloss, I am left underwhelmed by the meat of the story. The film relies heavily on flashbacks to unearth Hugo Glass’ motivations that felt more of a forced intermission than an organic backstory. The running time is as laborious as the trek of Glass’ party back to the fort. But if there’s one thing that I’d call out for, is the lack of emotional potency from ogling the viciousness of man, animal and nature which impedes whatever thematic relevance remains in the story. THE REVENANT is no doubt, a tour de force of its three important elements and it would be unfair to pertain to it as a gloating project with Oscar ambitions (which it has achieved). But to say the least, I prefer the parts than the whole itself.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

 

5. Bridge of Spies

The prolific partnership of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg reliably brought to life the good old glamor of period spyware in BRIDGE OF SPIES, remarkably understated and grounded despite being helmed by Hollywood’s heavyweights. That isn’t to say that the thriller, about an American lawyer (Hanks) who arranges a tense prisoner exchange, is slow-burner that fizzles until the climactic scene foreboded by the title. Written by Joel and Ethan Cohen, BRIDGE OF SPIES unravels the unique humanity of the situation channeled through James Donovan whose compassion, perceptiveness and professionalism were his weapons in thorny geopolitical negotiations and public persecution. Hanks finely embodied an ‘everyday’ man who committed himself to an extraordinary cause – a nuanced portrayal not quite resonated by Matt Damon in The Martian (just my opinion). But the film’s MVP (featuring one of 2015’s best performances) is Mark Rylance who won Best Supporting Actor as the wry and translucent Soviet spy. Rylance radiates a beguiling charm in Abel’s pensiveness and resignation that serves as the ying to Donovan’s determined yang. BRIDGE OF SPIES does not lose sight of its grim reality nor underplays the bitter aftertaste of war, but Donovan lulling back to his abode is a peaceful close that will usher the small victories (that he will be known for) to come.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

 

Up next: The better half puts women on the spotlight.

And my Oscar goes to… (2016 edition)

It’s the time of the year again! One of the surprises that came out late is that there is actually a race. Not a twosome showdown like 2014’s Gravity vs. 12 Years a Slave, nor 2015’s duel of the B’s: Birdman vs. Boyhood. Guild, critic and press awards are building towards diversified winners but in fact, there is one clear Best Picture. I’ve been rallying for it ever since seeing it last May (and if you’re following my Twitter account, you’ve probably been exhausted reading about it unless you agree). Have I been correct on my Oscar predictions? Yes and no. Basically, this list wraps up who I think are deserving to win. Again, here’s wishing for 2017 to be a better Oscar year for the rightful films.

@@@@@

Best Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road 

Best Sound Mixing: If Mad Max: Fury Road‘s battle cry of the guitar-thrashing war boy doesn’t win an Oscar — not only was it bizarre; it was the perfect accompaniment for the craziest and electrifying cinematic car chase ever — then I don’t know anymore.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: From Charlize Theron’s smoky and revering eyes to the grotesque villains led by Immortan Joe, every physical detail of the characters in Mad Max: Fury Road has a story to tell. And they are just simply one-of-a-kind.

Best Visual Effects: I’m glad to see Ex Machina be nominated along with the heavy-weights, but it wouldn’t likely win. The Revenant winning for that bear-maul scene is both a joke and a shocker while The Martian‘s VFX is no match against fellow sci-fi Gravity. Press for Mad Max: Fury Road had talked more about the crew’s resourcefulness and ingenuity than for visual effects. In the end, the technological update accomplished in Star Wars: The Force Awakens gets my vote.

Best Original Song: Probably “Til It Happens To You” by Diana Ross and Lady Gaga from the documentary, The Hunting Ground. “The Writings on the Wall” is a mediocre Bond theme (sorry, Sam Smith; it wasn’t a worthy follow-up to Adele’s Oscar-winning “Skyfall”). And it’s the year of the Gaga.

Best Original Score: John Williams’ iconic score for Star Wars is nominated, again. Perhaps the Academy should award someone else? How about The Hateful Eight? I heard it was good (but wasn’t able to see it yet).

Best Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road (God was the production designer for The Revenant. Amen.)

Best Film Editing: The playfulness in The Big Short‘s story-telling is lend by its uncanny editing but the magic of this technical element is best displayed in Mad Max: Fury Road. The car chase throughout the film was never a bore; in fact, it’s the adrenaline-filled interplay of action, thrill and suspense that made me so alive.  

Best Cinematography: While I had locked this category for Mad Max: Fury Road, Emmanuel Lubezki’s work in The Revenant was so admirable that he deserves a back-to-back-to-back Oscar. It’s probably the only legit part that I like about the film.

Best Documentary FeatureAmy

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul (Hungary)

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

Best Adapted Screenplay: If the Academy is daring enough, it’d pick Room which is my second choice. But it would probably go to WGA winner, The Big Short.

Best Original Screenplay: Nice to see Ex Machina and Inside Out land nominations but I’m all for Spotlight.

Best Supporting Actress: Isn’t it sweet to have Leo and Kate Winslet win in the same year? But I’m going for my girl Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl.

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stalone‘s return as Rocky Balboa in Creed could sway a sentimental vote. The neurologist-fund manager with an artificial eye and Asperger syndrome that Christian Bale becomes for The Big Short comes as second. I still wished Jacob Tremblay was nominated; he was the heart of Room.

Best Actress: Congratulations to one of the youngest Best Actress winners, Brie Larson for Room! The edginess and vulnerability she display creep under the skin that her portrayal of ‘Ma’ is unnerving to the point of frustration. But knowing what her character had gone through, she deserves it. (Still, my heart goes to Saoirse Ronan who tugged my heartstrings in Brooklyn).

Best Actor: He knows it. He can feel it. It’s a long time coming for Leonardo DiCaprio whose committed performance in The Revenant is… Okay, he deserves to win with respective to his fellow nominees but we can agree that this is not his best performance of his career. Right?

Best Director: All the way for George Miller who is the true visionary for Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Picture: I can’t say which film had done this before but for the past years, the eventual Best Picture winner also won a Screenplay award. In that case, the Oscar odds are in favor of The Big Short and Spotlight. BUT a win for Alejandro Innaritu as Best Director (after receiving the DGA award) locks the plum prize for The Revenant which is not nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category (see the conundrum?). Nevertheless, as I stay true to which film should win, my Best Picture goes to 2015’s extraordinary masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road.

 

 

P.S.

I’m more likely wrong on the supporting actor categories but I’m counting on Mad Max: Fury Road to earn the most number of Oscar wins while The Revenant to spoil the night 😛